*The following article discusses eating disorders in detail. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, consider that this might be triggering, and visit BEAT for support. Here are tips for helping a loved one struggling.*
I don’t often go into specifics regarding my eating disorder. This is a conscious choice, as I don’t like how competitive such discussions can become. I don’t want to ‘defend’ my experience and prove that I had it bad enough. Having an eating disorder often feels like you’re constantly validating your experience and trying to prove that you struggled, not only to other people, but to yourself as well.
No matter what your experience was, your eating disorder is still valid, because you struggled. Eating disorders rob you of an innocence surrounding food and your appearance, and that should never be undermined.
This is one of the most common misconceptions of eating disorders, and also one of the most dangerous. We assume that someone has to be severely underweight for their eating disorder to be valid. It also enables us to lie to ourselves, to tell ourselves what we’re doing is okay because we’re not underweight. But it isn’t okay to starve yourself, it isn’t okay to purge, it isn’t okay to run your body ragged, and every other disordered behaviour.
Your weight is not the only marker of your eating disorder. Other symptoms of eating disorders include difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, dizziness, muscle weakness, constantly feeling cold, fatigue and so much more.
Furthermore, losing a lot of weight but not being underweight is still concerning. If you have a big drop in weight without becoming underweight, that is still a huge strain on your body.
I am naturally a bigger size, and now that I’m in a better place, my body reflects that. So even at my worst, I was never as underweight as some naturally thin people. But it was underweight for me and my body type; it was still unhealthy for me. Instead of focusing on what is underweight for the average population, focus on what is underweight for the individual, as that is just as concerning.
Eating disorders aren’t just about weight. That statement can be a surprising one. But just like diets don’t always work to make you lose weight, eating disorders might not as well. An eating disorder isn’t measured in the weight you lose, but in the damage to yourself, especially mentally.
If you are looking in the mirror and seeing a distorted version of yourself, if you have a disordered relationship with food, if you are fixated on your body, then the weight doesn’t matter.
An eating disorder is about so much more than weight, and often specific behaviours are replacements for other issues. In many ways, my eating disorder was another form of self-harm, a way to punish myself. It was how I could hurt myself in a more ‘acceptable’ manner. Many eating disorders also revolve around control and a desperate grab for it. You limit what you eat or you purge in an attempt to feel in control.
Even if you didn’t lose weight, even if you gained weight, your eating disorder is just as valid.
The media often portrays eating disorders as an individual completely stopping their food intake. And this could be the case for some, but not for everyone. Some people will still eat something, but not enough. Some people will eat as much as they did before but be overly fixated on it, and others will use excessive exercise or other behaviours to compensate. Some will eat more than they did before, as binge eating is just as valid of an eating disorder as one focused on eating less.
I don’t consider myself to ever have ‘recovered’ from my eating disorder because it is so firmly implanted in my mind. I’m back to my body’s comfortable weight and yet I can’t fully shake the perspective of an eating disorder. Even when I am eating whatever I want, I’ll always know the calorie intake, and always be struggling with my reflection in the mirror. An eating disorder is about so much more than what’s on your plate.
I used to think that my mental illness wasn’t valid unless I got hospitalised. It seemed like this accomplishment would confirm how much I was struggling. I felt like I couldn’t tell people until I reached that goal post. But being hospitalised isn’t an accomplishment, and I wouldn’t wish that for anyone.
Some people with eating disorders will be hospitalised due to the extent of damage they’ve inflicted on their body, but many won’t. And those who don’t are still struggling and deserve to be taken seriously. Being hospitalised isn’t a requirement and proof of anything.
I didn’t think I was depressed because my therapist never officially said that. It didn’t matter that I was hurting myself, fantasising about ending my life and constantly miserable. I thought I needed them to officially knight me as someone with clinical depression.
I didn’t think I was bulimic because I didn’t fit the other criteria, as I didn’t binge-eat and fit other criteria.
Time and time again, I waited for someone else’s approval on what was happening to me. But if you are engaging in such damaging behaviours, then you don’t need them to confirm it for you.
Either way, it is always worth speaking to a trained professional so they can help you. Just don’t rely on the exact term from them to believe in what you know is happening.
It is so difficult to suffer in silence. And a lot of us are actually waiting for someone to notice. We want someone to stop us and say that they see what is happening, that they’re worried about us. I’m not saying this would be enough to stop someone’s eating disorder, not at all, but it’s a feeling of validation we seek.
But you can’t wait for other people to see that you’re struggling, because you are damaging your body and mind, because you deserve to get better. People won’t see what is right in front of them, and sometimes they don’t see it because they don’t want to. It feels easier to live in denial. Others may have noticed but don’t know how to even approach it. Mental illness is scary and so denial feels easier.
On some level, you know that what you’re doing to yourself is wrong, so don’t wait for someone else to say it. Be the person who notices for you.
When you’re doing well, it can feel like you were simply overreacting before.
Could it have been that bad if I’m fine now?
Recovery is something to be celebrated, not something that should invalidate your previous experience. It was that bad, it was that difficult, it was slowly killing you. But you were strong enough to overcome it and that doesn’t detract from what happened. It just shows that you fought to get better.
How long it takes you to recover doesn’t speak to how much you were struggling, they’re separate things. So don’t invalidate your experience because you’re doing better.
Every eating disorder is different, and in a world that is obsessively fixated on how we look, it can be hard to even recognise what is ‘normal’. Everyone I know has dieted at some point in their lives, and I don’t know anyone who is completely happy with how they look. But that doesn’t mean that we should just accept disordered eating and other self-harming behaviours surrounding our bodies. We need to validate people’s experiences so that we can work towards a future where they’re less and less. Your eating disorder is valid, and I am proud of you for working towards recovery.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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